Neither sex nor children: Couples today are most concerned about money

Finances are one of the most common reasons for divorce. Partners may disagree about budgeting or grow apart because of differences in income, especially when vacation comes around

A couple looks into a window on a New York street in 1955.
A couple looks into a window on a New York street in 1955.Ernst Haas (Getty Images)

Actress Gabrielle Union and NBA star Dwayne Wade have one of the most solid marriages in Hollywood. Beyond true love, their secret to success may have to do with an Excel spreadsheet: the actress has said that they split their shared costs in half, a confession that some media outlets have met with surprise.

However, money is a delicate topic for couples, according to psychologist María Palau. “It’s one of the most common reasons that couples go to therapy. If it can be difficult to handle individually, finding a way to manage it with a partner can be very complicated. The most common reasons tend to have to do with differences in each person’s values, financial inequality, disagreement over shared expenses, individual debt and different ways to manage it, as well as the lifestyle of each person,” she explains.

Vacation expenses and emotional overbooking

As summer approaches, it’s important to keep costs in mind. From the choice of a travel destination to the hotel upon arrival, everything brings up financial issues. Pepe Maciá, a finance expert, teaches his clients to divide their finances into three categories: travel, socializing and personal expenses. In the socializing and travel categories, couples tend to work in three different ways.

We have already mentioned the first one: contributing half of their shared expenses, each person keeping what is left over. “That works when the two people earn the same, because there’s nothing to compare, which tends to be the problem. If one of them earns more than the other, the person who earns less can feel like they don’t have anything left for their own expenses, so they either make do with what is left over or ask their partner for money. In both cases they can feel inferior,” he explains.

Vacation costs are often a reason for conflict between partners. In the image, a couple looks art wine in a window in Tuscany, Italy.
Vacation costs are often a reason for conflict between partners. In the image, a couple looks art wine in a window in Tuscany, Italy.Tim Graham (Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Another method is for each person to contribute the same proportion of their income, depending on the difference between their salaries. “In that way, the person who earns more contributes more to their expenses. But the person who earns more may feel that they lose out, because despite earning more money than their partner, ultimately, they have the same amount to spend on personal things,” he says.

One last option: combine all the money, as if it were a single budget, and spend from there. “Here the person who earns more may also have a discrepancy, feeling that they pay more because they contribute more money to the relationship. The person who earns less may be afraid of spending money because they feel like not all the money is theirs,” he explains.

Personal finances and salaries remain a taboo topic, but talking about them is important to ensure a relationship functions as a team. But before that comes up, a more basic question arises, though it may seem uncomfortable and antiquated to some: who pays on the first few dates?

“When couples start going out, before making a firm commitment to share costs, it is common for them to alternate paying. Later disputes may come up if, for example, one of them paid more on a certain date. It may naturally happen that each person pays for their part, or that they alternate when they start to have a more formal relationship. The ideal is to talk about it to know what your partner expects,” Maciá recommends.

Xabier Sanesteban, a couples’ financial coach, understands that it is difficult to talk about money, “especially when we’re getting to know the other person. We want the other one to like us, and we can seem stingy if we bring up how to pay for dates.”

Financial infidelity

In a poll from creditcards.com, a third of respondents “admitted to spending more than their partners would be OK with; holding secret debt; or keeping a secret credit card, checking account or savings account.” To avoid those financial missteps, we must address the classic fights caused because one member of the couple wants to buy something on a whim or treat themselves to a luxury, against the other’s will.

The first thing is to ask, according to Pepe Maciá, what a luxury is, for whom, and how much it costs. “For some people, a luxury could be a 50-inch television, and they may think that a car is a necessity, though it’s more expensive than the television. That’s why we need to sit down with our partner to express our financial personality, the way we use money, which comes from our childhood. We can solve those differences by talking about the issue beforehand and planning the expense, putting aside money towards it,” for example $100 a month instead of $500 all at once, “to make it easier for the person who does not agree.”

A couple observes watches in a Cartier boutique in Chicago.Scott Olson (Getty Images)

The psychologist María Palau says that the key is in finding a midpoint between the needs of both people in a relationship. “It’s not about changing who either person is, but bringing the extremes together. That can involve negotiating, making concessions or finding creative alternatives. For example, it is common for each person to have the same amount of money to spend on personal luxuries, or to establish a system so that each one has the opportunity to treat themselves.” Flexibility is also crucial: “Although having those conversations is an essential part of resolving conflicts, relationships aren’t perfect. There should be freedom and trust. It is the responsibility of both parties to be careful with that individual freedom and the other person’s trust,” she says.

Poisoned gifts

Gifts can be dangerous when it comes to couples’ finances. Pepe Maciá notes that they are one of the extra expenses that cause the most disputes in families. He recommends not giving surprise gifts, but budgeting for them for set occasions every year, such as Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries. Each person can have a spending limit. “If we use common sense, order and control, we can respect that budget. I don’t believe in giving better gifts according to the income of each person,” he says.

María Palau emphasizes that the most important thing is to show gratitude for a partner’s gift. However, if the differences in costs of gifts become a recurring problem in the relationship, it is important to talk about the issue and each person’s expectations, and, if necessary, agree on economic limits to avoid misunderstandings and resentment.

Unequal pay can lead to conflict. “In relation to pay inequality, in some cases, the person who earns less may feel insecure,” explains Palau, “and feel that they have less right to make certain decisions or even have a say in matters that include economic expenses. Therefore, it may end up affecting their role in the relationship, the sense of belonging within the relationship and their ability to get involved in long-term plans. On the other hand, the person who earns more may experience pressure to take on financial responsibilities, may feel that the other partner is less involved or even develop the so-called savior syndrome and demand too much of him or herself,” she says.

Unfortunately, this problem is exacerbated when, in a heterosexual couple, it is the woman who earns more, according to the experts. “There are a lot of families now where the woman makes more than the man, and I think the team mentality for young couples is more and more common,” Maciá says. “On a soccer team, one person makes goals and another person stops them, but both have the same right to the trophy. Each person is better than their partner at certain things and worse at others, and earning more money than your partner doesn’t give you the right to feel superior, just as if you contribute less money than your partner, you shouldn’t feel inferior, because teamwork is not just about money.”

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